Students Learn About Life in Russia Beyond the Stereotypes Through Pen Pal Project

May 30th, 2014 by 

Holy Cross students share a selfie with students in Russia as part of a pen pal project. Amy Adams, associate professor or Russian, is pictured at top right.

You could call it To Russia, With Love.

As political tensions increasingly define relations between the United States and Russian governments,  18 Holy Cross students in a Siberian literature course this semester were busy learning about real life in today’s Russia through an electronic pen pal project with 19 students at a Russian university.

Students in the Fire and Ice: Siberia in Fiction course, taught by Amy Adams, associate professor of Russian, were communicating with students from the Baikal International Business School at Irkutsk State University. Students in the Holy Cross course explore the natural and ethnographical history of the region, the idea of Siberia as a land of freedom, exile and captivity, and the great themes of Siberian fiction.

In addition to an online discussion forum, students talked with their Siberian peers through email, Twitter and Facebook (and the Russian equivalent, VK). They even held a webinar at the end of the semester. Because of the 13 hour time difference, students gathered at Holy Cross at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night, while their pen pals were in their 9 a.m. class on Wednesday morning.

The idea for the project took shape when Adams’s former student Drew Cummings ’13 won a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Russia last year.

“I was looking for ways to make Siberia seem more real to students and contacted Drew,” Adams says. “He put me in touch with professors there in the international business school whose students were looking for ways to improve their English and learn more about American culture.”

From there the project heated up — and helped melt some of the icy stereotypes that plague Russia. Students on both sides were fascinated with each other and shared lots of information, pictures, MP3 files, and more, says Adams.

“The Irkutsk students are extremely well read and want to discuss American literature, but often tell our students about their world travels and their recreational activities, which include things like sky diving, scuba diving and surfing — not what you think of when you think about Siberians! This information, I think has prevented my students from forming stereotypical ideas about Siberia. Instead they tend to think of Siberia as a place rich in future possibilities,” she says.

Students in the course say it is among the best experiences they’ve had at Holy Cross.

“The pen pal project was one of the most enjoyable endeavors I have had during my first two years at Holy Cross,” says David Grillo ’16, an economics major and Russian minor, who will be taking part in the College’s study abroad project to Moscow this summer.

“It brought learning out of the classroom and made me realize just how small the world we live in really is. In a way it makes me realize that the things we fight over and go to war over are in fact trivial. At the end of the day, all we really have is each other. My pen pal Christie helped me realize that, and I can’t wait to visit them this summer.”

Adams says she was delighted to walk into class to hear excited updates about new Russian friends amid all the tough talk between the U.S. and Russian governments.

“I give students full credit for taking to the idea so readily and for being so open and positive about the project,” she says.

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